The growing problem of homelessness in Niagara Falls has sparked what people on the front lines of helping those without a roof over their heads say may be an unprecedented movement to help society’s most vulnerable people.
At St. Andrew’s United Church on Morrison Street, three homeless people cautiously walked through the doors on a cold, drizzly night Thursday to become the very first homeless people to take shelter against the elements at a new overnight warming shelter launched that day.
The two-year pilot project is being funded by Niagara’s regional government, which receives homelessness funding from the province and federal government and which contracts agencies across Niagara to provide emergency shelter.
Church pastor Rev. Diane Walker, Project SHARE executive director Diane Corkum, Niagara Falls Community Health Centre community outreach worker A.J. Heafey, volunteer Kathleen Skinner and shelter co-coordinator Andrea Birrell were among those gathered in the church chapel, setting up cots on the floor with blankets and large, fluffy pillows just hours before the shelter opened.
It will run seven days a week from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to the end of March.
It’s been at least a decade since the city’s last Out of the Cold program offered such overnight shelter, said Heafey.
The idea for the new shelter dates back to a city council meeting in January, in the midst of a winter with bone-chilling temperatures, when local businesswoman Angela Peebles told city politicians the heart-wrenching story of a homeless man named Gregory who was often seen near her restaurant, the Regal Diner.
On one particularly vicious night, Gregory knocked on the back door in obvious distress, said Peebles, who stressed the cruelty of forcing homeless people in the Honeymoon Capital to be sent to St. Catharines or Welland to seek shelter because of the lack of such shelters for men in Niagara Falls.